In a thought-provoking article, “Why MBA Programs Don’t Produce Leaders”, Drew Hansen argues against the idea that you can learn leadership by studying for a Master of Business Administration (MBA). “Leaders are created in the crucible of life, not a classroom,” according to Hansen.
While Hansen’s position is well supported by his own analysis, I’m prepared to offer a more optimistic take. MBA programs produce leaders via three channels: reflection, knowledge building and experiential learning. For each of the methods to work, you need to choose a program that supports your personal leadership journey.
Nelson Mandela Learned Leadership by Thinking
If leadership can only be learned by doing, how does one explain Nelson Mandela? After spending 27 years incarcerated in a small cell on Robben Island Prison, he emerged to lead his country into the post-apartheid era. His leadership skills appeared to be enhanced, rather than diminished, by decades of social exclusion.
Mandela was sentenced to life-imprisonment in his mid-40s, after many years living as an attorney and political activist. He could draw on considerable life experience during his countless hours of contemplation with the narrow confines of a prison cell.
When Mandela returned to visit the prison as South Africa’s president, he talked about several leadership qualities he was able to strengthen while confined. These include honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and focus.
A lesson to learn from Mandela is that your actions as a leader are driven by your personal qualities and guiding principles. These can be cultivated by nothing more than a process of internal reflection, drawing on personal experience.
An MBA degree can, likewise, develop leadership qualities by encouraging participants to think about the principles that underpin their workplace actions. We see this in the many programs that aim to connect theory to each student’s professional experiences.
Method 1 – Reflection. MBA programs can produce leaders is by stimulating the right kind of reflective thinking.
A Stronger Knowledge Base Helps You Lead
Leadership training is, it seems, an increasingly small part of the MBA experience. General leadership theory is being crowded out by other subjects as student opt for specialized programs, with concentrations such as international business and health management.
The availability of credible distance learning MBAs is also allowing each student to choose the program, however far away, that best matches their interests and career goals. Consequently, the traditional MBA program, with a strong emphasis on leadership principles, is being chosen less.
If leadership itself is being taught less, how can MBA programs keep producing leaders? A key part of the answer may lie in Robert Sutton’s observation that “big-picture only” bosses are “the worst”.
Sutton rather convincingly makes the claim that deep and detailed knowledge of your field makes you a better leader: “The best [new managers] are obsessed with learning details about every aspect of the business; the worst – the least promising and most arrogant – treat such nuances as being somehow beneath them.”
While you can’t normally expect to gain highly job-specific knowledge through a course, an MBA program can bring you up to speed – at least for management and leadership purposes – on diverse topics and disciplines. For example, you might learn enough from your units on marketing and data analytics to better manage your next multi-disciplinary project.
Another way to think about this is that leadership and strategy are often talked about as “joining the dots”. But you can’t join the dots if you’re fuzzy on where the dots are. Understanding management theory back to front is only useful if you also have good knowledge of the different aspects of business operations.
Method 2 – Knowledge building. MBA programs can produce leaders by improving the depth and breadth of each student’s knowledge base.
You Can Gain Experience While Doing an MBA
A good MBA program is rich enough to offer more than academic instruction. Students are also able to experience things that impact on them and which they can look back upon, and draw from, in the future. Experiential education refers to learning that actively involves the student and which has feedback and reflection components.
For example, an instructor could ask a student to create a strategy to achieve a given objective. The student might pitch their approach to a group of fellow students, who give feedback on strengths and weaknesses. Then the student may be asked to refine or change their strategy based on the feedback.
Experiential education has a better chance of developing a person in a practical sense, beyond what passive reading of theories and facts can offer. The richness of the learning process, with phases such as planning, execution and adaptation, can be immersive, challenging and emotive.
Such applied learning in an MBA program complements real-world experience in developing leadership qualities. The learning exercises can be quick-fire, diverse and challenging. Students may develop certain competencies faster or better than possible in the workplace alone.
Method 3 – Experiential learning. MBA programs can produce leaders by offering rich applied-learning experiences.
How to Become a Leader by Doing an MBA
Having identified ways that MBA programs can teach leadership and produce leaders, some strategies fall out for how you can become a leader by doing an MBA.
To optimize the benefits of reflection, you should delay doing an MBA until you have plenty of business management experience. You can gain this experience in being managed but it’s also worthwhile to have supervisory and leadership experience. That way, during your studies, you can think deeply about how to refine your style to better handle different situations.
To optimize knowledge building, choose an MBA program with a curriculum that aligns well with your goals for deepening and extending your knowledge base. Popular careers for MBA graduates include business consultant, business development manager, general manager and program manager. Ask yourself, “Does this program offer knowledge that will help in my preferred career stream?”
Finally, try to find an MBA program that offers experiential learning and not just the traditional lectures and exams. You’ll develop more, have more fun, and become a better leader by doing an MBA program that challenges and excites.